Should Science Majors Pay Less for College Than Art Majors?

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Philosophy lovers, prepare to be outraged. 

Down in Florida, a task force commissioned by Governor Rick Scott is putting the finishing touches on a proposal that would allow the state's public universities to start charging undergraduates different tuition rates depending on their major. Students would get discounts for studying topics thought to be in high demand among Florida employers. Those would likely include science, technology, engineering, and math (aka, the STEM fields), among others. 

But Art History? Gender Studies? Classics? Sorry, but the fates are cruel. Unless a university could show that local companies were clamoring to hire humanities students, those undergrads would have to pay more for their diploma. 

Charging tuition by major is one of several recommendations the task force will submit to lawmakers as part of a broad reform package for Florida's university system. The hope appears to be that by keeping certain degrees cheaper than others, the state can lure students into fields where it needs more talent. It's an interesting idea in the abstract, but if it ever makes it into law, the results could be messy. 

Before we dive into the pros and cons of the proposal, a few details: The task force's plan calls on the state to help colleges freeze tuition for three years on "high-skill, high-wage, high-demand" majors picked out by the legislature, while letting prices rise for other areas of study. It's not clear yet what degrees would fall under that "high-demand" umbrella. But Florida's state schools already hand out about 37 percent of their diplomas in subjects the government has deemed "strategic areas of emphasis," which include the STEM disciplines, some education specialities, health fields, emergency and security services, and "globalization." Presumably, many of those same majors would qualify for the cheaper tuition rates.

In an interview, task force chair Dale Brill explained that other, less intuitively career-oriented majors might also be covered by the tuition freeze. For example, Brill said, Florida State could reasonably lobby on behalf of its creative writing and film programs, which have had success vaulting students into the entertainment industry.

For some, it might seem inherently unfair to send dance majors deeper into debt just to keep tuition low for engineers, who are already poised to earn more once they graduate. Brill sees it otherwise. First, he said, tax dollars are scarce, and the public deserves the best possible return from its investment in education. That means spending more generously on the students who are most likely to help grow Florida's economy once they graduate. Second, he argued that too few young people consider their career prospects carefully when picking a major. "The tuition differential will increase the probability that there will be some introspection about careers and livelihoods," he said. 

Ensuring that taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck is an admirable goal. So is encouraging students to think ahead about their careers. The question is whether staggering tuition among majors will actually accomplish either.

To believe that it will, you have to accept two notions: First, you need to take it on faith that the government is capable of divining which majors are going to be the most marketable year after year. Second, you need to believe that there are a large number of talented undergrads who could hack it in these subjects, but are choosing easier majors instead. 

I'm not sure either of those assumptions are sound. 

With enough good data and clear judgment, Florida's legislature could theoretically figure out the types of students employers need and adjust tuition accordingly. But it would have to be nimble, because the job market for recent grads doesn't always shape up the way one would expect. In a January report, for instance, the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce found that journalism degree holders between the ages of 22 and 26 actually had a lower national unemployment rate than young mechanical engineers -- 7.7 percent versus 8.6 percent. Economics graduates had about the same rate as english literature BA's -- 9.1. percent versus 9.2 percent. And kids with computer science degrees were actually a bit behind their peers who studied communications -- 7.8 percent to 7.4 percent. 

Suprising, right?

Would Florida's legislature react intelligently to that sort of data? Or would its decisions boil down to "Science: Good! English: Bad!"? Your guess is good as mine. But, as anybody with a healthy sense of conservatism should admit, the demands of the economy are probably going to move faster than any statehouse, and it's frighteningly easy to imagine schools one day down the road nudging kids into fields where the job market has dried up. Today, according to the Georgetown report, recently graduated architecture majors have a 13.9 percent unemployment rate. Now just imagine if Florida had been pushing kids to learn how to design McMansions during the housing boom. 

Meanwhile, it's not clear that hoards of potential engineers and computer scientists are shunning the campus lab in order to go read Baudelaire instead. Though I haven't seen state-level data, the vast majority of bachelor's degrees awarded in this country go to students who study business, science, engineering, and health. The kids today already approach college with a fairly pre-professional mindset. 

This isn't to deny that Florida might be suffering from a technical talent shortage. According to the National Science Foundation, the state lags behind most of the country when it comes to graduating students in both the STEM fields and the math-heavy social sciences. But that may just be a function of the state's poor high schools. After all, Florida's seniors finished near the bottom in math on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test often referred to as the nation's report card. Only 3.3 percent of Florida high school seniors managed to score a three or higher on the AB calculus advanced placement exam, tying the state for 21st in the country. The state's students just don't seem to do well with numbers. 

That brings up another worry: If discounting STEM degrees does lead more students to try their hand at Engineering 101, it might also lead more of them to fail out of it.  

This is why there's something to be said for letting students study what they like: they tend to be better at it. Thankfully, the task force's proposal is not focused exclusively on STEM, and if the final version was thoughtfully designed, with the right mix of majors appropriate for a wide enough variety of students, it might help start more of Florida's young people along solid career paths. If not, the state's education system could be in store for some nasty unintended consequences. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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